WASHINGTON — It’s a simple question with a simple answer, and yet it revealed so much about the Celtics and Wizards. Why is it that these two teams always play like they’re jealous brothers wrestling for little reason?
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us,” Isaiah Thomas said after the Wizards’ Game 3 victory, punctuating the point with a smile and a shrug. “That’s just what it is.”
Like a relationship turning sour by the day, the Wizards and Celtics can’t even explain why they can’t stand the other. In one moment, they downplay the rift as a natural one between two teams trying to climb the East food chain. In another, they throw passive-aggressive jabs at each other, suggesting the other sinks to guerrilla tactics they must have the strength to ignore.
“We can’t fall into their game. Shoving, pushing, trash-talking,” Marcin Gortat said. “We’ve got to just sit there and be who we are,”
So why don’t they like each other anyway?
“I don’t know. I wish I knew. I wish I knew,” Bradley Beal said. He pauses.
“We’re similar in a lot of ways,” he continued. “They’re real passionate about themselves. They’re passionate about their team. We’re young. We’re two on-the-rise teams in the East. We know right now that one of us has to die, essentially.”
Facing their own mortality following a painful Game 2 defeat, the Wizards responded by talking a big game. They’re a proud bunch of woofers, forged by the arrogance of Paul Pierce and perfected by the no-BS hard shell of Markieff Morris. They talk the talk, and when they walk the walk, they talk the talk some more with language the FCC wouldn’t approve.
So while altering their scheme to deny Thomas the ball and make him work defensively were priorities, they weren’t nearly as important as rediscovering the fire within.
After a dreadful Game 2 he quickly tried to forget, Beal got off hot with seven quick points, including an offensive rebound on the first possession. The Wizards swarmed Thomas off dribble handoffs and screen-and-rolls, ignoring shooters spotting up to squeeze Thomas into a straightjacket.
They took turns posting Thomas up with glee early in the second quarter, and though Thomas held his own, the buckets the Wizards did score were symbolic of the big bully finally swatting away the gnat. Boston looked shellshocked and the Wizards rode a rabid home crowd to an easy victory.
But it did not serve the Wizards well when that take-no-prisoners attitude caused them to lose their cool. The most significant example came after second-year forward Kelly Oubre absorbed a blow to the face on a Kelly Olynyk screen. Enraged, Oubre sprinted after Olynyk and wound up for a two-handed shove just as Olynyk was seeking an official for refuge. That stunt cost Oubre his spot in this game and could cost him more in the coming days, which would further depleting a shaky bench.
“I don’t know what [Oubre] was doing,” Thomas said. “The screens we’ve been setting, especially in the frontcourt, for the most part I feel like they’ve been legal.”
Even the Wizards acknowledged that Oubre put the team in jeopardy.
“With his reaction, he has to do a better job than that,” John Wall said. “He’s important to our team. He’s an X-Factor. We told him, ‘We understand you get frustrated. There’s plenty of times throughout games that I want to do stuff. But I know how much I mean to the team.’ So I think it’s just a learning experience for him moving forward.”
Yet it’s hard to divorce the moment Oubre lost his cool from the Wizards’ very life force. Before the game, Oubre and Morris warmed up in white T-shirts with the phrase “Death Row D.C.” and a stick-figure drawing.
Morris gave the team that nickname in January as a homage to the famous 90s hip-hop record company, then assigned teammates alter egos based on the artists on the label. He printed out the T-shirts and passed them to teammates. Some, including Oubre, have been wearing them throughout the series.
What started as a silly joke has turned into an ethos that sustains them when the going gets tough. They wear their pride on their sleeves, flaunting to the world that they will keep it real, stomp on your throats, and let you know about it. Loudly. And if they’re failing to stay focused or dig deep when the going gets tough, it’s probably because they’ve stopped acting like the biggest bully in the room.
That puts them in direct conflict with a Celtics team that also doesn’t take crap from anyone and is standing in their way in their quest for precious relevancy behind the Cavaliers. Every game — every possession — becomes a battle for respect, recognition, and the right to say that they shut the other up and put them back in their irrelevant place.
These two teams are one in the same, as loathe as they want to admit it. They are the white-and-gold vs. black-and-blue dress debate, in NBA form. And as long as they’re fighting for their spot in the East ladder, they’ll keep snarling at each other, insisting that there’s nothing unusual about the other that’s causing this behavior when they all know there is.
That’s why they don’t like each other.
Why the Wizards and Celtics hate each other – SB Nation